Saturday, October 10, 2009

The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

- Matthew 9:35-10:4

After Jesus' great healing miracles, he travels all about, teaching, preaching and healing in various ways. We are told that he has compassion on the crowds, and that he sees them as "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." This gives us a clear picture of what it is to be in the world without leadership or direction. We also recall Jesus' words earlier in the gospel about sheep and wolves - and leaders who are wolves in sheep's clothing. Those who love the sheep will help them: the wolves in sheep's clothing will use them for predatory purposes. Everywhere Jesus goes, then, he seems to find the sheep without shepherd, without help or care, "harassed and helpless." His clear indication of compassion, of sympathy, tells us why and how he is here in the world.

Although clearly he has used titles for himself which imply a messianic status, and therefore that he will also be Judge, Jesus' reading of the world is not as a harsh judge, but as a compassionate and sympathetic one. My study bible points out that "compassion" means "suffering with." In this gospel of Matthew, characterized by the word Immanuel or "God with us," Jesus comes to the world not only to share our lot, but to understand it - to live as one of the sheep, and to be in the world as the Good Shepherd who cares for us. So, the narrative in this passage sets up a clear parallel between Jesus' compassion for us as the Good Shepherd, and his appointing of apostles to help carry out the necessary work or leadership and shepherding.

In this passage, this work of shepherding is also equated with "harvest." My study bible points out that the harvest in this context is from the work of the prophets, who have prepared the people throughout history for the acceptance of what it is that Jesus has to teach. And there are other characteristics of a good shepherd (as opposed to the predatory wolves) revealed here: Jesus shares his power with his disciples and apostles. He uses his own power to heal and to teach, and he shares his power with those who will also act as shepherds for the care of the sheep. This is an important characteristic to understand when distinguishing between a true shepherd (or fellow sheep) and a wolf in sheep's clothing: Jesus shares his power with us. He uplifts and elevates us; this healing power is always accessible through prayer and relationship. Predatory leaders do not: they retain all power to themselves and do not share with the sheep.

Furthermore, Matthew sets out the names of the apostles in pairs. In other gospels, we are told that they are sent out on their first mission in pairs. Here, the words "disciple" (in Greek, this word means "learner") and "apostle" (in Greek, meaning "officially sent on a mission") are interchangeable for these original Twelve followers. Just as we are encountering a community that needs help, so they are sent "in community" so to speak. It reminds me of the doubling of the demoniacs that needed healing, and of the blind men who cried for mercy. Matthew's awareness is of community, a community in need of shepherding and leadership and care.

My study bible has a very interesting note on this passage, which I'll quote: "It is not the number of those who go which is most important, but the power given to those who are sent." This is a reminder of the nature of the kingdom, from whence stems all of Jesus' power. We have many parables about this, from the mustard seed that grows to a sturdy bush in which birds of the air can nest, to the yeast with which full measures of flour are leavened, to seeds planted by a sower that then sprout on their own. Clearly it is the nature of this power that is essential for us to look at and to understand, and it coincides also with the nature of the power of faith (which we've also had compared to a tiny mustard seed that can move a mountain). The power that is shared through teachers and apostles, those who are sent out, is of a nature that it grows with us and in us, in potent ways we can't calculate nor can we force of our own will or action. We can act as a circuit, and allow that faith to work through us and in us. Both as individuals and in relationship with all those whom we encounter, faith is shared and grows. The kingdom itself is something that rests within that nature of its power and in the faith of those who participate in it. It is among us still. I hope in some way that my blog can be useful as well in that action and growth among us.

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